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Concrete proposal for reform: open letter to Theresa May

StopWatch responds to HMIC Report on police legitimacy

Dear home secretary,

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) has published today its first report on the legitimacy of police forces in England and Wales and StopWatch is pleased that the impact stop and search has on police legitimacy has been recognised.

Almost two years since its introduction, the report reveals that police forces are failing to comply with the Best Use of Stop and Search Scheme. The scheme promised greater transparency, community involvement and improved stop and search outcomes through supporting intelligence-led approaches and increased monitoring. Amongst the findings of the report we are particularly concerned that:

  • Only 11 of the 43 forces are fully complying with the scheme.
  • Nationally 15 per cent of records fail to demonstrate reasonable suspicion standards in the use of the power to search. These searches are therefore unlawful.
  • There was not one force where reasonable grounds were recorded on all records reviewed and in some forces the percentage of unlawful records was much higher. The report notes that all the records reviewed had been endorsed by a supervisors pointing to failing supervisory structures. These findings suggest a failure of supervision and leadership.
  • 57% of all searches are for drugs. About half of these were carried out because the officer had “Smelled cannabis”, yet drugs were only found 22% of the time. This suggests, at the very least, professional incompetence.
  • In spite of explanations that drug searches are a useful way for officers to find other illegal items, such as weapons and knives, this was only supported in 3% of cases.
  • Black and Minority Ethnic people are still disproportionately stopped and searched, at over twice of the rate of white people. The rates are higher for some ethnic groups such as those from Black communities.
  • Given that ethnic disproportionality remains stubbornly high, it is shocking that 11 forces are still not monitoring the impact of stop and search powers on black and minority ethnic communities or on the young people who are disproportionately affected by these powers.

StopWatch welcomes an overall reduction in the numbers of stop and search and an improved arrest rate but there remains large inconsistency across forces. While 25% of the searches led to an arrest in the City of London, according to the latest data published by the Home Office, half of the forces have an arrest rate of around 10% or less. Also, findings on stop and search effectiveness are far below the College of Policing’s definition of a Fair and Effective stop and search that implies searches should result in an item being found in more than 50% of the cases.

Despite HMIC recommendations from March 2015, it is disappointing to see no progress on the recording and regulation of powers to strip search and conduct traffic stops. StopWatch is also concerned that no specific attention has been given to searches of children, which are routinely carried out across the country with no safeguarding policies in place to ensure their wellbeing.

It is disappointing that, even after considerable effort to reform stop and search over the past years and your commitment to the issues, meaningful change has still to be achieved on a national level.

We welcome your decision to suspend thirteen forces from the Best Use of Stop and Search Scheme as a result of the HMIC’s findings but this fails to go far enough. It is clear that the police cannot be expected to reform themselves and membership of a voluntary scheme has not driven the desired change. In April 2014 you promised that if these reforms failed, you would bring forth primary legislation. StopWatch therefore calls on the Home Office to introduce primarily legislation to reform stop and search once and for all.

We recommend that:

  • S.60 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act be repealed;
  • S.1 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) be re-drafted so as to restrict stop and search to situations where a constable has a genuine and reasonable belief that wrongdoing is afoot;
  • S.1 PACE be amended to ensure that groundless searches or those based on unjustified or unreasonable suspicion are prohibited;
  • Officers repeatedly stopping and searching people without grounds (ie unlawfully) are be subject to disciplinary proceedings and stripped of the power to conduct searches;
  • S.1 PACE be amended to record and monitor traffic stops in the same way as stop and search;
  • S1 PACE be amended to require the recording of strip searches in the same way as stop and search. 

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